Florence’s 1950s tuna noodle casserole (recipe)

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Here’s my version of our family recipe for the classic American 1950’s dish that we, as Catholics who didn’t eat meat on Friday, often had that night of the week. When you watch Mad Men, remember that in Iowa we were sitting around the table eating this. We bought our first TV in 1956 and those ads created on Madison Avenue hadn’t yet started to reach us.

The main recipe change is that I use better noodles than the ones my mother, in Iowa, had access to. And since I live in Switzerland I’ve added Gruyere cheese, but any hard cheese will do.

First, a word on peas and freezers.

A word on peas

Florence's tuna noodle casserole, 1950s-style all-in-one meal

Florence Lonergan Wallace, my mother, liked canned peas, which I never have. We had fresh peas on occasion, when we would visit my grandmother in Reinbeck, Iowa, but I was never fond of them because we had to sit on her back steps and shell them first.

I’ve just been reading the history of frozen food and discovered that Clarence Birdseye brought the first quick frozen products to the US market in 1930.

My mother bought food once a week when I was a child, and our refrigerator had a freezer compartment just large enough to hold ice cubes, so while frozen foods were available, we didn’t buy them for storage until the 1960s. I immediately became a fan of frozen peas, a lifetime food love affair, as long as they are really good quality (the smaller the better).

When I moved to Ireland in 1981 for a few months I was astonished to discover dried peas and to learn that for many Irish and British families, this was a staple vegetable. I’ve never learned to appreciate them, except in soup.

Here is what we ate two nights ago at my house, in celebration of the centenary of my mother’s birthday, 26 January. It’s a one-dish meal, not costly, can be increased or decreased for the size of the crowd, and if it’s made well, with good ingredients, you can’t go wrong, especially with kids. A key to success it to make sure it doesn’t dry out; I know too many Americans who has memories of flannel-flavoured tuna noodle casseroles!

Florence’s tuna noodle casserole, circa 1950

Serves 4-5

Preheat oven to 190C / 350F

Ingredients, sauce: milk, butter, flour

Ingredients: main

canned tuna, “natural” (packed in water, not oil), 200g
noodles / tagliatelle, 500g

green olives with pimiento stuffing, 10-20, quartered
medium green pickles, gurkens and not cornichons, 2 diced
pepper, green and/or red, 1/2, diced
onion, 1 medium, diced
celery, 2 stalks (peel, if slightly bitter European celery), diced
cheese, 100g of Gruyere (I used the sharper salé), grated using large holes
frozen peas, small, 250g

Seasoning: salt and pepper, paprika, mustard (optional)

1. Chop as indicated the main ingredients, except for the noodles (tagliatelle), crumbling the tuna, and mix in a large casserole baking dish. Salt and pepper very lightly.

2. Cook the noodles (tagliatelle) according to instructions, usually about 8 minutes, run cold water over them to stop the cooking and drain. Set aside.

3.  While the noodles cook, make a white sauce:

  • melt over very low heat 2 T (tablespoon) of butter, then take it off the heat and add 2 T of white flour, stir to blend
  • add in, all at once, 1 cup of milk, return to medium-low heat
  • stir very frequently (to avoid lumps forming) until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes, noting that towards the end it can thicken very quickly and stick to the bottom of the pan.

3. As soon as the sauce is ready, add the drained and slightly cooled noodles to the other main ingredients, toss gently to mix, then pour the sauce over, making sure the ingredients are covered evenly with sauce. Use a knife tip to add a touch of mustard here and there. Sprinkle with paprika.

4. Bake uncovered just long enough to blend flavours and heat through, 20-25 minutes uncovered, checking to make sure the noodles don’t dry out. If it looks too dry, place a piece of foil loosely over the top.

Tip: if it doesn’t look like it’s moist enough before baking, add a few drops of milk. Better: if you think you don’t have enough sauce you can increase it (but it will be a bit thinner) by taking some of the finished sauce, adding it to 1/2 cup milk off the heat, blending well, then adding this back into the prepared sauce, over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for another 2-3 minutes.